Road Trip: Coonoor to Munnar

Road Trip: Coonoor to Munnar

Take the scenic route from Coonoor to Munnar via Palakkad and Kochi

23 Min Read

The colour green — there’s something about it that instantly soothes the city-worn soul, and causes it to wax lyrical about love and beauty and peace. This drive takes you from the sky rises of Bengaluru to the verdant forests of Bandipur, where you can spend hours romanticising the glories of nature. Then you head to the cool confines of Ooty and Coonoor, where the only intoxication on offer is that of garden-fresh tea. After, drive down to windy Palakkad and then Kochi, to get a taste of the art and culture of the south, before visiting beautiful Munnar, where the tea-bush laden vistas greet you like an old friend and help you come to terms with the fact that the journey is almost over. Read Part 1 of the drive here.

Route: Coonoor-Palakkad

Distance: 121 km

Time: 3.5 hours

Spend a couple of days taking in the sights in and around Coonoor and enjoying the pleasant weather before heading down to the hot plains of Tamil Nadu. From Coonoor, take the NH67 to Coimbatore, the second largest city in Tamil Nadu and the capital of Kongu Nadu district. Dine at one of the restaurants here to get a taste of authentic Tamil-Bramhin cuisine. From here, take the NH47 to Palakkad. You will enter Kerala soon after you cross Walayar Lake.

The expansive green paddy fields of Palakkad

This quiet town is the capital of Palakkad District — Kerala’s rice bowl and the gateway between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A natural depression in the Western Ghats — the famous Palghat Gap — makes Palakkad windy. Like a town that would rather be a village, it makes way for chariots during festivals. Like a village that wants to be a town, it loves air-conditioned restaurants and amusement parks. There are beats of the panchavadyam sharing sound waves with film songs. Palakkad is home to a considerable number of ‘Tam Brams’ who settled here over centuries in agraharams, villages that preserve their unique way of life. They assimilated Kerala influences to produce a delicious cuisine. The many kaavus sprinkling the countryside actually hold much of the Palakkad experience.

Things to See & Do

The granite fort built in 1776 by Hyder Ali of Mysore, now called Tipu’s Fort, dominates the town. Square-shaped, with thick walls and strong bastions at the four corners, it is a well-preserved structure, and on breezy evenings, a pleasant place to walk around.

Vadakkanathara Temple, Palakkad

The Vadakkanthara Temple deity, Bhagvathy, is an incarnation of Kannagi— the heroine of the Tamil epic Silappadhikaram. Fireworks are set off at 6.00 pm sharp in the temple compound. Manapullikaavu is a major Devi shrine and is the other significant temple situated in Palakkad. The Vishwanathaswamy or Shiva Temple has an imposing flagpole. The Shiva Temple is a low quadrangular building situated on the banks of the Kalpathy river, dating back to 1425. It has been built as a replica of the Kashi Temple at Benares. The Kunnathurmedu Sreekrishna Temple, located at the heart of Palakkad town, has an idol of the child Krishna. Palakkad was once home to a community of 400 Jain families. The Jain temple on the Kalpathy river is believed to have been built about 500 years ago by a Jain head, for the Jain sage Chandranathaswamy.

Take a stroll down Kalpathy, Kumarapuram, Ramanathapuram, Ambikapuram or Chokkanathapuram to experience the ambience of a gramam. Vedas and shastras are orally passed down from one generation to the other. The houses all follow a similar style, from the small artistically carved door complete with 6- to 7-foot-long latches to the thick wooden vasapadis (thresholds). Toilets are not located inside the main house. You will find intricate kolam patterns in front of houses and the sound of nadaswaram music wafting over the village from the temple. Palakadu or Palakkad is home to around 108 agraharams. The Kerala government has declared them heritage sites and major architectural changes or rebuilding is banned.

Route: Palakkad-Thrissur

Distance: 67 km

Time: 1.5 hours

The next day, take the NH47 westwards to Thrissur.

Kerala’s culture capital, full of academies of literature and arts, is a town content with its past. King Rama Varma of Kochi, called Shakthan Thampuran (1751-1805), played a major role in making Thrissur a cultural treasure trove. Over centuries, it saw the rule of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Today, it is a place where elephants are worshipped, a Lourdes Cathedral looms over the town, and ghee dosas are plentiful, as are antique murals and wood carvings.

Things to See & Do

Believed to have been built by Sage Parasurama, Vadakkunathan Temple is one of the largest temples in Kerala. Shakthan Thampuran renovated the Shiva shrine (Vadakkunathan means “Lord of the North”) to the magnificent edifice it is today — a 10-acre temple complex with massive gopurams. The complex has some exquisite murals and wood carvings. The famous elephants of the temple are worshipped as Ganesha’s incarnations. Only Hindus are allowed inside the temple complex; men dressed in a mundu, women wearing a sari or salwar kameez.

Poorams are temple festivals where deities from several shrines congregate at a particular shrine. The Thrissur Pooram is held outside the Vadakkunathan Temple, in April-May. Caparisoned elephants in two processions represent the Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu temples.

The grounds holding the imposing Shakthan Thampuran Palace and gardens house the tombs of three nobles, including that of the king. The palace is an example of his simple lifestyle, with lots of woodwork sans embellishments.

The stately building that houses the Archaeological Museum used to be the summer palace of the Raja of Kollengode. Sati stones, huge burial pots, Harappan shards and menhirs are part of the superb collection.

The Zoo Complex holds a variety of animals as well as a Snake Park. Within the compound is the Natural History Museum and Art Museum.

Marthoma Mariam Big Church is the oldest church in these parts. Dolores Basilica was built in 1875. The 140-ft-high steeple can be seen from almost anywhere in town. Lourdes Cathedral is the third of Thrissur’s big churches, with a unique underground prayer chamber.

Route: Thrissur-Kochi

Distance: 86 Km

Time: 2 hours

From Thrissur, the NH47 winds southwards towards the coast. Take the road to meet the Arabian Sea at Kochi.

The Fort Kochi heritage zone — all 6 sq km or so of it — wears a cosmopolitan aura with superb ease. It is still Kerala’s most visited city, boasting a cultural mix of Malayali Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews. It is also hard to resist the charms of Kochi’s distinct geography — a mix of islands, peninsulas, backwaters and a harbour. Mainland Ernakulam is the place of new shops and houses, but the old parts like Fort Kochi or Mattancherry is where you can see the influences of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The pretty islands and the Vembanad backwaters nearby as well as the seafood add to Kochi’s charm.

Things to See & Do

The Fort Kochi Heritage Zone is home to some lovely old buildings and streets, and the iconic Chinese nets. The local name for these fishing nets is “cheenwala” (of China). Visitors can take a walk around these parts using the walking tour map and guide of Fort Kochi, available at the Kerala Tourism Desks.

Chinese nets installed at the Kochi waterfont

The waterfront is a good place to watch the Chinese nets in action early morning. Then as the sun sets, Beach Road provides the ideal setting for long walks and for watching the ships. A great way to round off the day is to sit by the side of some stall and have fresh catch made to your specifications.

Princess Street was perhaps among the first streets to be built in Fort Kochi. The road is lined with colourful European-style buildings, some of which have stucco walls and almost all have flower-pot-laden windowsills. The bakeries and the ambience at places such as Kashi Art Café enrich the area. Many wonderful old houses have been converted into heritage hotels. Check out Koder House, Old Courtyard, Old Harbour Hotel, Ballard Bungalow and Malabar House. Drop in to have a bite and see the interiors. Peter Celli Street also has many old bungalows.

First built by Portuguese Franciscan friars in 1503, the simple St Francis Church on Church Road is said to be India’s oldest European church. Vasco da Gama was buried in this church in 1524, before his remains were moved to Lisbon, Portugal. In contrast to St Francis, Santa Cruz Basilica, also built by the Portuguese, is grand and impressive. Notice the stained-glass windows, arches and charming confessional boxes here. In 1795, the British took over Kochi and demolished the Roman Catholic church. The present building dates from 1887.

Pardesi Synagogue, Mattancherry

Also known as the Dutch Palace, the Mattancherry Palace was built by the Portuguese in 1555 as a gift for the Maharaja of Kochi, and renovated by the Dutch in 1663. The palace now houses rare regalia that includes coronation robes, weaponry, wooden palanquins, maps drawn by the Dutch, oil portraits and some vivid murals. Don’t miss the Ladies’ Chamber below, and the explicit mural of Krishna cavorting with gopis.

A colourful and a great place to shop, Jew Street abounds with curio shops and spice souks. Jews once occupied almost all the houses along this street, but today these residences are shuttered or have been rented out to schools and offices. Their fretwork arches wear a forlorn look and the blue-and-green façades are fading. Built in 1568, the 400-year-old Pardesi Synagogue is a must-visit. It boasts curved brass columns, a carved teak ark, Belgian crystal chandeliers as well as Torah crowns of gold set with gems. The synagogue’s prized possessions, however, are two copper plates with details of privileges granted to the Jews during the reign of Bhaskara Ravi Varman. Photography is not permitted inside

Willingdon Island, artificially created by the British, hosts the Indian Navy’s Southern Command, while the Cochin Shipyard lies across the water in Ernakulam. On Mulavukadu Island, Bolghatty Palace is a Dutch palace built in 1744, now a Kerala Tourism hotel. You can stop here for lunch. Vypeen Island is 22-km long and only 2.5-km wide with the sea and backwaters on either side. The long Cherai Beach is the attraction here. These islands can be reached by ferry from Ernakulam as well as from Fort Kochi

An excellent way to discover the backwaters is to take a cruise along the Vembanad Kayal from Ernakulam to Perambalam and back. The cruise takes about two hours and at dawn you can see the fishermen in canoes with their wide nets trailing.

Route: Kochi-Munnar

Distance: 128 KM

Time: 3.5 hours

Spend two nights in Kochi and then follow the NH47 and NH49 to Munnar.

Munnar is not just Kerala’s most sought-after hill resort, but it is also the centre of the state’s tea-growing district, aptly known as the High Range. The valley town is home to tea fields as well as eucalyptus plantations, which fuel the many tea factories in the vicinity.

Things to See & Do

Run by Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, the Tea Museum traces the evolution of the tea industry in Munnar from the 1880s. At the adjacent tea-processing unit, visitors are introduced to the stages of tea manufacturing and the intricacies of tea tasting.

Typifying Munnar’s secular culture, a church, a temple and a mosque are all located on three hillocks overlooking the town. A kilometre outside town, the Church of South India sits amid eucalyptus trees.

Athukad Falls at Munnar

Located deep in a valley approximately 8 km from Munnar, just off the Kochi Road, are the Athukad Falls. A narrow bridge spans the gorge. There are two other cascades along this same route. The Cheeyapara Falls plunge from a height of over 500 ft right next to the highway and are a popular bathing site. A kilometre away are the impressive Valara Falls cascading into a ravine.

An islet on the reservoir of Mattupetty Dam, Munnar

The 160-ft-high Mattupetty Dam has a vast reservoir extending several kilometres into the hills. A cruise here is an exhilarating experience, offering occasional sightings of elephant, gaur as well as sambar. For a breathtaking view of the Talayar Valley on one side and Munnar Valley on the other, drive up to the Nyamakad Gap on the Munnar-Coimbatore Road.

An isolated outpost 34 km from Munnar, Top Station is perched on a precipitous ridge in Tamil Nadu, 3 km from the interstate border. Its genesis dates back to the 1880s, when British pioneers accessed these hills from the plains of Tamil Nadu, working their way up an elevation of 7,000 ft from Bodinaya-Kannur in the foothills. An interesting site here are the ruins of the old ropeway station that linked the foothills to the tea estates. Additionally, the outpost affords a stunning view of the surrounding mountainous landscape. Day 13

Route: Munnar-Salem

Distance: 324 KM

Time: 6 hours

Spend two nights in beautiful Munnar before heading to Salem. Leave in the morning and follow the NH49 from Munnar to Theni, then take the SH36 and NH45 to Chinnapallapatti. From here take the NH7 and then the SH209 to Dindigul. This ancient city has numerous temples, churches as well as mosques, the most prominent of which is the 18th-century Kalahastheeswara- Gnanambika temple. Sample the delicious cuisine — you will find everything from traditional Tam-Brahm dishes to nonvegetarian delights. After your meal, drive on the NH7 till you reach Salem.

A little town now famous for stainless steel, Salem has a hoary past as seen in the implements and other remains excavated from here in the 1900s, which date back to the Stone Age. Hagiographies of the Siddha saint Bhogar mention that he lived here in the 3rd century BCE. That Salem had active trade and cultural relations as far back as the 1st century CE is evident from the discovery of Roman coins dating back to this time.

In Salem itself, the best thing to do is walk through the markets and visit a few temples. Walking around Bazaar Street is recommended; the streets are narrow and crowded, there are temples at every turn, flower-sellers and cows loll around, and everything’s a riot of colour and sound. Kandhasramam, about 18 km from Salem, is a temple to Lord Subramanian situated on a hillock. The temple is quite beautiful, and the view of Salem from here is spectacular.

Route: Salem-Bengaluru

Distance: 202 KM

Time: 4 hours

After a restful night, a morning of sightseeing, and a hearty meal, leave Salem on the NH7. If you have time, make a quick trip to Yercaud. You can access the hill station on the SH188.

‘Yercaud’, Tamil for ‘lake-forest’, lies in the Eastern Ghats which, unlike the lush Western Ghats, are generally dry and feature rocky hills. It is thus a wonderful aberration. There are coffee plantations and orange groves as you approach and the town itself is comfortably small and rewardingly pretty. The main attraction is the Big Lake, which offers boating. There is a well-groomed garden, Anna Park, nearby. Lady’s Seat offers a spectacular view of Salem. Shevaroy Temple is the highest point in Yercaud. Also check out the Small Lake, Killiyur Falls and Botanical Garden.

From here, take the SH188 back to Salem and then leave for Bengaluru on the NH7. Like most highways in the South, the NH7 too is in great shape and your vehicle can easily lap up the miles.

Tips and Tricks

This drive goes through three states: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, through protected forests, town and country plains, up ghats and along the sea. The road conditions vary through the route. From Bengaluru to Bandipur, the roads are fairly good, but from here on through Mudumalai, they are in a bad state. The stretch up to Ooty through Gudalur is decent. The stretches up to Munnar and down to Coonoor are a bit tricky, especially if it is raining or misty, and need to be negotiated carefully. It is best to avoid these stretches at night.

Petrol pumps, puncture repair shops, dhabas and garages are available in plenty on this route. There are only two stretches where there is almost nothing: between Mandya and Srirangapatna, and between Madukkarai and Karumadampatti.

While driving from Coonoor to Coimbatore, and from Munnar to Palakkad, it is wise to start very early in the morning, as roads tend to get crowded later in the day and you won’t enjoy the terrific view just as much. Also, do remember that the stretches into and out of Kochi and Bengaluru will be very crowded during peak hours.

Stopovers

Palakkad

Where to Stay & Eat

A beautiful Ayurveda resort, 25 km from Palakkad in Kodumbu, the KairaliThe Ayurvedic Healing Village (Tel: 04923-222553, Cell: 09526260100, 09999231117; Tariff: ₹23,440-72,420) is set amid herb gardens and beautiful coconut groves.

For experiencing the traditional Palakkad way of life, try Kandath Tharavad (Tel: 04922-284124, Cell: 09349904124; Tariff: ₹7,600-12,500), the 200-year-old ancestral homestead of a clan in Thenkurussi village or one of Kerala’s best-preserved heritage Namboodiri illams, Olappamanna Mana (Tel: 0466-2285383, Cell: 09895081821; Tariff: ₹6,180-25,000), in Vazhukappara village.

In town, Srichakra International (Tel: 0491-2570901; Tariff: ₹2,100-3,800) at Krishna Gardens, Hotel Indraprastha (Tel: 2534641-47; Tariff: ₹1,700-6,000) on English Church Road, Hotel KPM International (Tel: 2534601-02-06; Tariff: ₹1,500-4,500) on the Press Club Road, Fort Palace Hotel (Tel: 2534621; Tariff: ₹1,800-3,720) on West Fort Road and Kanoor East Fort Resorts (Tel: 2526935; Tariff: ₹500-900) are among the several options available here.

Ashok Bhavan on GB Road, near the Head Post Office (HPO), is the best place for hot breakfasts. Curry House at VH Road and Hitec Plaza opposite the KSRTC Bus Stand are good. Noorjahan Hotel, on GB Road, is a haven for those who like nonvegetarian food. Rava Stores near the Head Post Office is the place for delicious rice murrukus or tapioca and banana chips.

Thrissur

Where to Stay & Eat

Among the good hotels are Dass Continental (Tel: 0487-2446222; Tariff: ₹2,800-4,500), Elite International (Tel: 2421033; Tariff: ₹760-3,600) and Casino Hotel (Tel: 2424699; Tariff: ₹1,700-6,500). Walk into any hotel and try the local speciality — nadan fish curry.

Kochi

Where to Stay & Eat

The Brunton Boatyard (Tel: 0484-2215461-65; Tariff: ₹10,500-39,500) is famously built on a former boatyard and boasts stunning harbour views.

The beautiful boutique hotel, Malabar House (Tel: 2216666; Tariff: ₹6,500-22,000), has stunning interiors and a gorgeous courtyard with a swimming pool.

Kochi’s Portuguese heritage is also preserved in the romantic The Old Courtyard (Tel: 2216302, 2215035; Tariff: ₹2,000-6,500).

Koder House (Tel: 2218485; Tariff: ₹5,371-15,039) is a heritage boutique hotel that is listed in INTACH’s list of heritage sites.

The beautiful pool at Vivanta by Taj Malabar, Kochi

At the tip of Bolghatty Island, Kerala Tourism’s Bolgatty Palace & Island Resort (Tel: 2750500-600; Tariff: ₹4,600-15,300) lords it over the harbour. Willingdon Island has a Vivanta by Taj Malabar (Tel: 6643000; Tariff: ₹16,000-40,000) and the Casino Hotel (Tel: 2668421- 221; Tariff: ₹7,400-12,000) which promises fabulous views.

The in-house restaurants of most hotels such as Brunton Boatyard, Malabar House, The Old Courtyard and Koder House serve delicious food in lovely settings. Fort Kochi’s beach-side food stalls, near the Chinese nets, offer good food, beautiful views and sea breezes. The biryani at Kaikka’s in Mattancherry is legendary; be sure to arrive before it finishes around noon.

Munnar

Where to Stay & Eat

Perched high above the Kochi Road, 6 km from Munnar, Windermere Estate (Tel: 04865-230512; Tariff: ₹8,000-18,000) offers charming cottages and some planters’ villas.

Blackberry Hills (Tel: 232978-79; Tariff: ₹6,400-8,800) has 18 cottages that are spread across a slope on Bison Valley Road.

Bungalows on offer at The Tea County, Munnar

KDHP offers four bungalows around the town under the brand name The Tea County (Tel: 230460; Tariff: ₹6,800-12,500).

The Woodbriar Group’s Tallayar Valley Bungalow (Tel: 0422-2311834; Tariff: ₹7,500-30,000) is another option that provides efficient service and scores on the food.

A host of small eateries dot the town, dishing out wholesome and cheap eats such as vadas, bondas and bhajis. Those seeking authentic regional food can head for SN Lodge, which is known for its nonvegetarian thali. For vegetarian options, visit Saravana Bhavan on MG Road or Arya Bhavan.

Hotel LRN Excellency, Salem

Salem

Where to Stay & Eat

Hotel LRN Excellency (Tel: 0427-2314466; Tariff: ₹1,699-3,399) on Sarada College Road is a well-kept hotel with a restaurant that serves the usual range of South and North Indian, and Chinese food.

Hotel Windsor Castle (Tel: 2415060; Tariff: ₹2,095-5,870) on Rajaji Road is relatively newer than some of the other hotels, with amenities that are more up-to-date. The attached restaurant here serves vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian food. Hotel Park Plaza (Tel: 2415060; Tariff: ₹2,095-5,870), on the highway, features modern rooms, restaurants and a bar.

National Hotel (Tel: 2353800; Tariff: ₹740-970) is one of Salem’s oldest hotels, and though it was once a favourite, now its rooms are terribly rundown. The restaurant is decent.

Ananda Bhavan near the New Bus Stand on Five Roads and Sri Saravana Bhavan, also located on the same road, are two of the best places for excellent South Indian dishes, including many types of dosas served with a variety of green, red and white chutneys as well as sambhar. The Hideout in Hotel Ganesh Mahal has a bar and serves delicious non-vegetarian food. Chicken Magic Family Restaurant on Omalur Main Road is a good option for Indian non-vegetarian food.

Driving Options

This drive can, of course, be shortened by not stopping at all the destinations that have been covered in the itinerary. Those willing to drive for long stretches can even return to Bengaluru without stopping at either Salem or Palakkad. Alternatively, you can drive to the lovely plantations at Nelliyampathy (about 64 km from Palakkad), or to Yercaud (30 km away from Salem), which is a quiet, sleepy hill station. During the onward journey, you can head straight to Ooty without stopping at Bandipur and Mudumalai, and drive onto Thrissur without stopping at Coonoor. The duration of the drive can be increased by staying for longer at any of the stopovers, and visiting places close to the main route of this itinerary such as the Athirapally and Vazhachal waterfalls near the Sholayar Ranges, Choolanur Peacock Sanctuary, Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, Silent Valley National Park and Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary.


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